our first view of Raven Cliff Falls
This trail is one of the best kept secrets I have found in my years of hiking the South Carolina Upstate. At the same time it is not I hike I would recommend to anyone I actually like in the event that their experience on the trail would destroy our friendship. If anyone actually did elect to experience the “pleasures” of The Dismal Trail, I would hope they would do so with the following story and disclaimers in mind.

We discovered The Dismal Trail on accident which was our first mistake. I am fairly disorganized in my daily life but am extremely anal retentive when it comes to planning a hike. I do not start a trail without knowing exactly how far I will hike, how long it will take, and what surprises or obstacles I need to prepare for. For reasons I can still not fathom, I threw my standard operating procedures out the window when we stepped foot on The Dismal Trail.

 Our hike started as a casual walk through the woods to the bridge over Raven Cliff Falls last February. This involved an extremely easy four mile hike to a suspension bridge at the top of one of the biggest waterfalls in The Upstate. I was accompanied by wife and five-year-old son and despite the 28 degree temperature it was a beautiful day to be in the woods.  The hike was so easy in fact, that we thought we might explore the alternative route back to the trailhead. This alternative route was titled The Dismal Trail and the name should have been an indication as to what we were about to get ourselves into. 

The popular way to visit the top of the 400 foot Raven Cliff Falls is to take the Raven Cliff Falls, Gum Gap, and Naturaland Trust trails to the suspension bridge and turn around and come home for an extremely easy eight mile stroll through the woods. These trails essentially begin and end at the same altitude and are relatively flat for the entire trip. 
Happy times at the bridge before our descent.

The Dismal Trail offers a different terrain than the trails it connects to. From the suspension bridge, you are less than two miles from The Dismal’s intersection with the Raven Cliff Falls Trail for an 8.3 mile round trip. On paper this is only slightly further than our original “out-and-back” plan and we were excited about exploring a new trail. In reality, we were not prepared for these “less than two mile” change in plans to involve a near vertical drop and assent and an almost newsworthy tragedy. 

The trail is aptly named, to say the least. Actually, “dismal” borders on being an understatement. In the winter the barren trees, bitter cold and icy rock made the first half of the trail feel like the descent into icy madness. To return from these depths requires an ascent through the woods that appears infinite at times.

I imagine the summer version of this trail to be equally gloomy.  The thick green canopy would make you feel like a captive of the forest and the eerie silence would produce a sense of isolation from all that is safe and convenient in our normal routines.  I imagine a summer hike would evoke a sense of a thick green forest that is alive and watching you more than you are taking Her in. That said, if I had this to do over again, the summer would have been a preferable time to explore this corner of The Upstate.
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Without all of the dirty details of the pain, suffering, and fear my family enjoyed that lovely afternoon in February, let me just share the highlights: From the bridge at Raven Cliff Falls we descended (mostly) vertically for about a mile to the stream at the bottom of the valley. Along the way we were treated to majestic rock walls covered in ice that transported us to place far, far away from the temperate climate we are accustomed to in South Carolina. The scenery distracted us from realizing how far we were descending and the fact that we would have to regain this elevation change before we could return to the ease of the Raven Cliff Falls Trail.

The descent ended at a water crossing that offered the first major hurdle of the day. By hurdle, I actually mean near-life-altering-disaster. Instead of a bridge to cross the rapids we were provided with a cable crossing. This crossing involved two cables – one to stand on and one to hang on to. The lower cable was about six feet over the water and completely covered in ice. I hesitated to cross alone and a five-year-old made any attempt futile.  We lost 45 minutes of waning daylight walking up and downstream looking for a safe place to cross before we decided that if we did not cross immediately, we were camping.  Given the fact that temperatures were dropping to the teens and we had packed for a day hike, camping was low on our to-do list.  Our best solution was this: my wife hopped, climbed, and shimmied across a series of narrow tree branches and rocks to cross the rapids. I bit the bullet that was safest for Ivan and carried him while I walked across knee deep water that numbed my toes the moment they met. 

With soaked feet and disappearing daylight we began our ascent up the other side.  It was during this ascent that we observed the transition from “dusk” to “night”. The trail was covered in leaves and the only way to follow the infinite number of switchbacks was to keep up with the purple blazes on the trees. The darker it got, the more of challenge the blazes were to find. Add the fact that we were all running out of steam and I was carrying a five-year-old on my back in addition to my hiking pack and I started to doubt our ability to make it safely back to the car. 

I will be honest and admit something about myself for a moment. I have done a lot of stupid, dangerous things in my life but I never questioned the fact that things always work out for the best. Call it youthful arrogance or stupidity but I have never truly feared for my own safety or well-being… until The Dismal Trail.  I could not feel my feet, we were running up a trail losing sight of the markers and Ivan was on my back sensing our frustration and announcing that he was scared. By this point temperatures were dropping into the teens and nightfall was no longer creeping in but engulfing us. My wife was literally running ahead of us to keep track of the markers as they were disappearing with the fading sunlight. I kept up as best I could with a backpack and child attached to me.  As Ivan announced his fear I realized that for the first time in my adult life I shared this emotion 100%. 

The fact that I am writing this is all you need to know that everything worked out. I will spare you the description of the Angelic music that played from the Heavens as we finally walked off the trail in almost total darkness. I will not complain about the fact that my boots had turned into solid blocks of ice like some sort of cartoon character and my feet were half numb for three days after the hike. Nor will I dwell on the fact that we were blessed to find our way back and that even the slightest misstep or ten minute delay would have found us stranded on a trail not navigable without the sun’s help.

What I will do, however, is strongly recommend this hike.

I admit that things almost did not work out for us that day.  We almost spend a cold, dangerous night in the woods or, worse, been that family on the news that I constantly mock for their inexperience and stupidity. I feel guilty that every time we have hiked since that Ivan needs reassurance that we are not doing “that really long and cold hike again”. I cannot blame the trail, though, as these things are not the trail’s fault but my own.
The Dismal Trail is a lot of work but offers an amazing view of the mountains. It has no majestic overlooks but instead provides an intense view from within. Waterfalls, streams, and imposing rock walls are all extraordinary sights and the extreme change in elevation allows you to see the transformation of ecosystems as your explore the various levels of the trail.

I beg you, do not hike this trail if you are an occasional hiker or in questionable athletic shape. Read up on the area and print out a trail map. Allow yourself plenty of time to hike the trail at a comfortable pace without rushing through its beauty or threatening a fight against nightfall. Finally, under no circumstances would I attempt this in February with a young child. 

That said, The Dismal Trail remains on our hitlist. My wife and I will be back in better weather, we will know what to expect and we will not bring any hikers that need us to carry them. We will hike this trail as if we own it and we will see all of its beauty that we may have overlooked the first time out.  The first trip we were happy to survive the trail… one day soon we intend to enjoy it.
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